The Order of the Golden Fleece
October 29, 2011
The Order of the Golden Fleece is an order of chivalry founded in Bruges by Philip III, Duke of Burgundy in 1430, to celebrate his marriage to the Portuguese princess Infanta Isabella of Portugal, daughter of King John I of Portugal. It evolved as one of the most prestigious orders in Europe. Today there exist two branches of the Order: the Spanish and the Austrian Fleece; the current sovereigns of both branches are respectively Juan Carlos I, King of Spain, and Karl von Habsburg, grandson of Emperor Charles I of Austria.
The Order of the Golden Fleece was established January 10, 1430, by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in celebration of the prosperous and wealthy domains united in his person that ran from Flanders to Switzerland. It is restricted to a limited number of knights, initially 24 but increased to 30 in 1433, and 50 in 1516, plus the sovereign. It received further privileges unusual to any order of knighthood: the sovereign undertook to consult the order before going to war; all disputes between the knights were to be settled by the order; at each chapter the deeds of each knight were held in review, and punishments and admonitions were dealt out to offenders, and to this the sovereign was expressly subject; the knights could claim as of right to be tried by their fellows on charges of rebellion, heresy and treason, and Charles V conferred on the order exclusive jurisdiction over all crimes committed by the knights; the arrest of the offender had to be by warrant signed by at least six knights, and during the process of charge and trial he remained not in prison but in the gentle custody of his fellow knights. The order, conceived in an ecclesiastical spirit in which mass and obsequies were prominent and the knights were seated in choirstalls like canons, was explicitly denied to "heretics", and so became an exclusively Catholic award during the Reformation.
The Order of the Golden Fleece was defended from possible accusations of prideful pomp by Guillaume Machaut, who asserted that it was instituted:
“Non point pour jeu ne pour esbatement,
Mais à la fin que soit attribuée
â€¨Loenge à Dieu trestout premièrement
â€¨Et aux bons gloire et haulte renommée.”
â€¨Translated into English:
“Not for amusement nor for recreation,
But for the purpose that praise shall be given to God,
â€¨In the very first place,â€¨
And to the good, glory and high renown. "
â€¨The choice of the Golden Fleece of Colchis as the symbol of a Christian order caused some controversy, not so much because of its pagan context, which could be incorporated in chivalric ideals, as in the Nine Worthies, but because the feats of Jason, familiar to all, were not without causes of reproach, expressed in anti-Burgundian terms by Alain Chartier in his Ballade de Fougères instancing Jason "qui pour emportrer la toison De Colcos se veult parjurer". The bishop of Châlons, chancellor of the Order, rescued the fleece's reputation by identifying it instead with the fleece of Gideon that received the dew of Heaven.
The badge of the Order, in the form of a sheepskin, was suspended from a jewelled collar of firesteels in the shape of the letter B, for Burgundy, linked by flints; with the motto "Pretium Laborum Non Vile" ("Not a bad reward for labour") engraved on the front of the central link, and Philip's motto "Non Aliud" ("I will have no other") on the back (non-royal knights of the Golden Fleece were forbidden to belong to any other order of knighthood).